Moscow – The State Duma signed a bill early last year to decriminalise some forms of domestic abuse in Russia – a move condemned by critics as the sanctioning of violence.
According to the new amendments, first-time offenders would be fined instead of being charged and tried in a court of law.
While the move was denounced by many, Russian legislators stood by their decision citing the need to preserve traditional and conservative values – where what happens within the family stays there.
Alyona Zolototrubova, a solemn, prematurely aged woman in her early 30s, works as a hotel maid in a small town – which cannot be named to protect her security – hundreds of kilometres from Moscow.
She is a mother of four and until recently, had lived with her husband of more than 13 years. With a sombre expression, she describes him as “sadistic”.
“He has always been. Perhaps it was child trauma. He served in [the war in] Chechnya, but I don’t think that affected him as much. He was violent even towards his mother before the army,” Zolototrubova says.
“I was young and stupid,” she adds about getting married.
At the start of their marriage, everything was fine. However, her husband soon became extremely irritable and controlling. He didn’t allow her to talk to her parents, and forced her to leave university. She was socially deprived and isolated when the physical aggression started, about the time Zolototrubova gave birth to her second child.
He told me everything was my fault - and I believed it
He started throwing heavy punches at her on a regular basis.
“At first, he felt sorry about it,” recalls Zolototrubova. “He told me everything was my fault – and I believed it.”
Although this abusive behaviour was becoming the norm, Zolototrubova desperately wished things would change for the better. Once he started directing this “terror” at the children, there was nothing to do but find a place to keep them safe and away from their brutalising father.
Zolototrubova eventually managed to contact Alyona Sadikova of the Kitezh Crisis Centre. To escape her violent husband, she set off penniless on a bus journey to Moscow with her four children. She explained her decision to flee to each of her children individually, and they happily agreed.
“We took the necessary things we could, but we didn’t even have clothes that were warm enough. We carried four sports bags and a backpack each containing the absolute minimum,” says Zolototrubova.
“It was very cold when we arrived in Moscow. It’s a big city and we needed to find a place to stay.”
They stayed at the Kitezh Crisis Centre for several days before being relocated to a house in the Yaroslavl region, which they share with another family in a similar predicament.
The head of Kitezh, Alyona Sadikova, says in the first quarter of 2018, the number of women who have turned to the centre for help has been similar to previous years.
According to its annual report, the centre received about 230 calls for assistance in 2017 from women in a “desperate situation”.
Ekaterina Khodzhaeva has a PhD in sociology and is a researcher at the Institute for the Rule of Law. She says reports of domestic assaults have steadily risen over the past year.
“The complete decriminalisation of battery occurred in the spring of 2017 and, strangely enough, the cases of recorded violence became more prevalent,” says Khodzhaeva.
“The fact that there is a record of conviction or even involvement can significantly affect the future of the offender’s children. This deterred the victims of domestic abuse from going to the police. However, the change to administrative prosecution has reduced these risks, leading to the reported cases of violence increasing.”
In the first half of 2017, courts were inundated with nearly three times more battery cases than in 2015.
“Opponents of decriminalisation are right in that the main penalty of administrative prosecution is a fine. But neither fines nor compulsory work will solve the problem of domestic violence,” she says.
A request for comment from the ministry of internal affairs was not received by publication time.
The government should offer social and psychological assistance programmes for families, along with a network of shelters for victims, Khodzhaeva says.
“It seems to me that it would be more useful to start constructive work on the ground – to teach at least the district police commissioners to handle the victims, to inform them about the opportunities for legal and social assistance,” she says, adding it will be more difficult to implement such a system in small towns where one-third of Russians live.
Oksana Pushkina, a State Duma legislator who rallied against decriminalisation, suggests like other countries measures to prevent domestic violence, such as restraining orders, should be introduced.
As the deputy chairperson of the Committee on Family, Women and Children, she took part in drafting such a law.
“Statistics show that in every fourth Russian family there is the use of violence to some extent, ranging from humiliation and insults, blackmail based on economic dependence, and ending with beatings and more serious encroachments on the individual,” Pushkina told Al Jazeera.
“Preventive measures envisaged by the draft law are not punishments for an offender, but temporary preventive measures to stop the act of more serious offences, and to protect the victims. This law puts the family as a whole under protection from violence.”
Anastasia Potemkina’s artwork – dedicated to highlighting the scourge of domestic abuse – was exhibited at the Garage Museum in Moscow in 2017.
“It’s not that I am trying to speak for them, definitely not, but the lack of their [victims’] representation worries me,” she says.
While Potemkina never experienced domestic violence herself, she says other forms of abuse led her to create art in the name of survivors.
“It wasn’t my personal trauma and it never happened in my family, but there’s also psychological abuse in relationships, and I have experienced that as any other person in this country,” she says.
“It’s awkward that in this country feminism is still a cursed word. It’s embarrassing … I am not an activist [for feminism] and not trying to spread its ideas, but I think it’s a normal state of being for every modern human being.”
She adds her artwork aims to show domestic violence victims that the abuse cannot be tolerated.
“Many times, I have encountered these situations when someone is grabbing a woman by the hair on the underground [train], and she cries yet no one cares. A couple of times, I got involved in these fights and tried to stop it. It’s very scary.
“I don’t understand why there’s such indifference … There’s no situation where you should not interfere if you see that someone is acting violently,” Potemkina says.